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The wind plays Afton State Park like an instrument. The music begins at the start of this 11.1-mile loop, when the summer breeze rustles through the leaves of oak, aspen, and hickory above the trail. When I step into the prairie, the whispers follow all around me, as big bluestem and wild rye sway in the gentle breeze, and insects buzz all around. With no other hikers around, the sounds seem magnified. I can’t help but wonder what secrets the trees and the grasses hold. Whatever they are, I hope they’re as good as mine—that I’m only 30 minutes from the hustle of downtown St. Paul, and yet still in the untamed wilds.
Turn-by-turn from the Afton State Park Visitor Center
1) From the second parking lot, take the main trail .3 mile west to a T-junction.
2) The loop is 10.5 miles and camp is near the middle, so you can go either way; the writer went counterclockwise. To do the same, veer south and proceed .2 mile to another fork.
3) Turn west and follow the unnamed trail past hardwoods to the park road at mile 1.
4) Cross under the paved road and pick up the Deer Valley Loop, following it 1.8 miles through the forest to the park road again.
5) Take the connector trail .2 mile east.
6) Head south on another connector that doglegs east to the St. Croix River at mile 3.6.
7) Trek north on the River Trail, paralleling the water to the park boundary at mile 5.7.
8) Head west on-trail away from the St. Croix before cruising into the backcountry campsites at mile 6.7. (Stay straight through half a dozen trail junctions along the way.)
9) Next day, backtrack .2 mile north to a four-way intersection.
10) Turn west and hike .3 mile to another junction.
11) Head north on the Prairie Loop, which wends 2.5 miles through the grasslands.
12) Turn east off the Prairie Loop, plunging .4 mile through the forest to the final junction.
13) Veer south to reach the T-junction from step 1 near mile 10.8.
14) Turn east and retrace your steps to the Visitor Center, closing the circuit near mile 11.1 overall.
Camp: Backcountry Campsite #2
Find Afton’s 27 backcountry sites tucked on this bluff at mile 6.7 above the St. Croix River. Each comes with one or two tent platforms, a fire ring, and a table (first-come, first-serve or reserve online). A solar-powered water pump negates the need for long hauls to the St. Croix. Arrive early to nab Campsite #2, the most secluded of the bunch.
Since Afton became a state park in 1969, an ongoing effort has been underway to restore its tallgrass prairie. You’ll notice some sections still overrun by invasive cheat grass (uniform and monotone compared to the colorful native prairie), but a program of prescribed burns and native seed dispersal is steadily reclaiming the land. Look for native pasqueflowers, butterfly weeds, puccons, and blazing stars—and bluebirds and meadowlarks flitting among them.
In summer, look for painted turtles sunbathing on the banks of the slow-moving St. Croix and bald eagles soaring above. Foxes, white-tailed deer, badgers, and wild turkeys inhabit the forests and prairie here.
DO IT Trailhead 44.8535, -92.7767; 22 miles southeast of St. Paul on 70th St. S/Washington County Hwy. 20 Season Year-round; summer brings wildflowers and abundant wildlife, winter is even quieter and you get to use the ski trails and yurts. Permit Required ($19); reserve online or obtain at the ranger station.